There’s been a lot of rumbling in the M/M community about bias when it comes to review sites. Bias is defined as: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. Always one to have an opinion I wanted to explore this topic a little deeper so I asked M/M author Kate Aaron and the owner/operator of The Novel Approach Lisa to sit down with me and discuss this topic. This post is designed to give you a peek into the mindset of all three sides in this debate: reader (me), author (Kate), and blogger (Lisa). Obviously, due to my recent announcement that I’ve joined the team at The Novel Approach my opinion is a little mixed between being a reader and being a reviewer. Hopefully the following discussion is helpful.
PSA: No specific blog or site was targeted by this article. No recent situation spurred this on.
So, without further ado…enjoy.
Question: There’s been a lot of grumblings within the community lately about bias and the need for reviewers to keep their relationships professional with the authors they’re reviewing. How do you feel about that? Do you agree, and if so, why?
Jordan: I agree with that statement. I definitely think that reviewers need to keep their relationships professional, it’s a conflict of interest otherwise. You might be able to honestly review your friend’s book, but as a reader there’s no way for me to know that. Right or wrong you have to concern yourself with how your interactions look to other people. If I, as a reader, see that you’re close to one specific author and are reviewing their book, that screams bias to me, but that’s just my opinion. Am I saying that you can’t be friends with an author? NO, I’m not. I’m saying you shouldn’t review their book if that is the case. Some may know, others may not, that AJ Rose and I are good friends, and as such you’ll never see me review any of his books in any kind of official capacity.
Kate: I totally get that from a reader’s standpoint, if they see an author and reviewer are pally on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, and then they see that author’s books reviewed in glowing terms on that person’s blog, it stinks. It looks biased, whether the reviewer intended it to be or not. That being said, authors and reviewers have to work together all the time (the authors want the publicity of being reviewed, the reviewers want to have the best books featured on their blogs). So there’s a line that needs to be drawn, because m/m in particular is a small pond and the fish are bound to bump into each other. It makes the business side of m/m flow much more smoothly if you can be friendly with the people who can help you out.
Jordan: I agree with that. There’s a difference between a professional, working relationship and becoming personal friends. THAT’S the line to me. If I see a review site or one reviewer using their following to promote one author over all others, then that becomes a problem for me. For instance, if there’s a contest hosted on a site not belonging to the reviewer and several authors that they’ve reviewed are involved with the contest, for them to promote one over all the others calls their integrity into question in my mind. It’s an abuse of their power in my opinion and looks incredibly tacky.
Kate: I’d agree that particular situation shouldn’t happen if it’s supposed to be an equal contest (assuming all the authors are of equal standing/reputation and there isn’t supposed to be one main author dominating the competition from the outset).
Lisa: The keyword here is “the authors we’re reviewing”. I would never, for instance, review a book I’ve beta read because it’s a conflict of interest, just like I won’t review Rhys Ford because she’s more like a sister than a friend to me. I’m not sure if disclaimers should be offered on reviews for author friends, but I don’t think it could hurt and could perhaps add some legitimacy to the review. But either way, I will try and avoid it at all costs. I can tell you that, as a blog owner, my relationship with authors is somewhat different than that of many of my reviewers. I have day-to-day contact with these people because I’m coordinating reviews as well as blog tours for them. In some ways I’m a marketing facilitator, of sorts, so to keep that relationship professional, it means I don’t review a lot of the books we’re offered. In fact, I buy many of the books I review. But, as a reader, I do feel like I should be allowed to be a fan, and to immediately assume that my position as a blogger supersedes my ability to review a book honestly is a conclusion that shouldn’t automatically be jumped to. If I were doling out 5 star reviews to books that were universally receiving much lower marks elsewhere, I can see where skepticism would come into play, but I think each book, each review needs to be taken with a measure of consideration for the book itself and not for who’s offering the opinion.
Kate: I agree with that point in principle, but do you think readers really want to take the time checking over each review for partiality? From what I’ve seen, there’s a general consensus that a blog is either trusted or it isn’t, and people have pretty strong opinions on who can/can’t review what person’s work. I know as an author, there are plenty of people who think I shouldn’t rate or review books at all. Which I think is ludicrous, I can read hundreds of books in a year and I’m entitled to my opinion of them, although I don’t offer it in any professional way, and I do defer to the ‘if you can’t say something nice, say nothing’ rule. If I can’t give at least a 3* rating I don’t rate it at all.
Lisa: Honestly, I do think some of that responsibility falls upon the reader. I have eleven reviewers on my team. One could read a book and give it a 5 star rating, another could read the same book and give it 2 stars. If any reader is relying upon one source to decide whether they should or shouldn’t purchase a book, then caveat emptor. To address whether authors should do peer reviews, I don’t think I have an opinion on that because you’re allowed to be readers/fans too. That goes without saying. I think the difficulty comes in whether you only review the books you love, or whether you are also willing to say you didn’t like a book, why you didn’t like it, and risk it looking like sour grapes. It’s hard.
Jordan: I think authors rating other author’s books is a slippery slope. While I agree that they have that right to their opinion, it doesn’t always look the best when an author rates a colleague’s book poorly, whether it’s deserved or not. I know several authors who have said they only recommend the books they like/loved.
Question: So, it sounds like there needs to be a line drawn between personal friendships and professional relationships. How do you propose that happen, and what effect do you think that will have on authors and reviewers (and their readership)?
Kate: I don’t think anyone should have to curtail a genuine friendship for the sake of a professional relationship, but I think both parties should have an eye towards how it might appear to onlookers who are trusting the reviewer, in particular, to give them impartial opinions. I’d say if the reviewer works for/owns a blog that has more than one person doing the reviews, give that author’s books to someone else from the site. If it’s only them, then full disclosure. I’ve seen people who mix the author/reviewer line, saying they use different names for each so as to appear impartial, but I’d argue from a reader standpoint that appears duplicitous. I’d rather be given the information upfront and I can make an informed opinion how much weight to give a particular review.
Jordan: I’d agree with that. I would rather know up front. I’m very present on social media, so I see a lot of the interactions, which I suppose is the root of my issue. To someone not as connected it may not be that big of a deal. Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll never see me review any of AJ Rose’s books, because I consider him a personal friend. You might see an interview of him or his cast of characters, but never a review. Now that I’ve joined TNA I would pass that on to one of the other ten reviewers on the site. I couldn’t be unbiased in that instance.
Kate: I think ultimately what it comes down to is how much the readers trust the reviewer. If that trust gets damaged, they won’t visit the blog and it will be game over.
Jordan: Which also damages the author in that they lose a venue to promote their books. The bias argument affects the reviewer/site a bit more than it does the author, at least to me it does. We’ve had several well known sites that have shut down recently. Not saying they were biased in any way, but starting and maintaining a site or review blog is a big undertaking. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that no one really sees. I think it’s a shame that all that hard work is erased by being careless with your public appearance.
Kate: I do think the reviewers’ position is a little more precarious, because they’re trying to be an intermediary between the author (or, rather, the book) and the reader, when people’s tastes are so subjective that no two are going to agree on everything all the time. Ultimately, whether every reviewer hates or loves a book isn’t going to affect how one individual responds to it. That being said, there are plenty of readers who will trust a reviewer’s recommendation, or choose not to buy a book a reviewer didn’t like.
Lisa: I’m trying to decide how I want to respond to this. When I first started reviewing M/M 5 years ago, there were maybe a handful of review sites that catered exclusively to M/M romance. Now you can’t boot up your PC without finding another start-up M/M review site. Part of the problem is over-saturation. We’re forced to use social media now as a way to remain visible. I use Facebook as both a personal and profession place to promote the blog, and yes, I have a lot of authors on my friends list, and we interact quite a bit. There’s a fine line we’re forced to tow, but how are we supposed to promote our blogs if we don’t get out there and mix with the people who’re our reason for existing?
Kate: From the author’s perspective, I can say the same thing: you need to engage with readers in order to get your names out there (and m/m as a genre has exploded since I first published three years ago), but then you run the risk of being seen too often and being dismissed as spammy. It’s a thin line, and it sometimes seems everyone has an opinion where you are (and where you should be) on it.
Lisa: And that’s the crux of the problem. I try not to be spammy. I don’t want to be “that blogger” who self-promotes in every LGBT Facebook group, yet self-promo is a necessary evil. It seems as though we can’t win, either way.
Jordan: People respond better when they feel they’ve made a personal connection to someone, whether that be an author or a reviewer. So, either’s presence on social media platforms is a necessity. I do think there is a line between promo and spam, but I think few ever really cross it. I saw an author the other day post on Facebook to buy their book. That was it. No blurb, no promo, no anything, just buy my book. That sat wrong with me, because it comes across as demanding and unappreciative of the people who HAVE bought the book. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand seeing an author get disgruntled over their sales numbers publicly. It screams tacky to me.
Question: Given how easy it is to set up a review site, or to create a Goodreads profile, there are so many people reviewing books at the moment some say there’s no point going to one particular blog anymore to get an opinion when you can go to Amazon or Goodreads and see tens, if not hundreds. Does the review site still have a place in modern publishing?
Jordan: I think they do. Personally, I pay attention to the larger review sites with multiple reviewers, because it’s easier for me to pick a reviewer that matches my reading taste best. These review sites, often times, get the books free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Not every review on Amazon or especially Goodreads can say that. It’s harder to be objective about a book when you’ve invested your hard earned money in it. Not to mention, if you look on GR most books have over 100 reviews and who has time to sift through all those to see if they like the book? Not to mention that not everyone is capable of reviewing. Rating a book two stars because the characters didn’t do what you wanted isn’t helpful. If I’m rating a book I look at a multitude of things ranging from plot and character development to grammar. Even if I personally don’t care for a book, if it’s well written, I’ll rate it higher and express that it wasn’t my style of book, but if you like *insert certain genre here* then you’ll probably like this book. That makes a good reviewer in my opinion and that’s why I think the review blogs are still an asset. Even outside of reviews, it gives authors, especially self published authors, a place to promote their book via interviews and blog tours. That’s essentially free promo, which I would think is invaluable to authors.
Kate: Absolutely, I think a good review site is still a valuable asset to readers and authors alike. Yes, everyone can go on Goodreads and see hundreds of reviews of a book ranging across the spectrum, and often that is useful if you take it as a whole, but there’s no way of knowing how many of those reviewers approached the book with bias of their own (the latest Mortal Instruments title, for example, had hundreds of ratings before it was published just because people were looking forward to it). I think what distinguishes a professional review blog from yet-another-person-with-Wordpress is a clear agenda. Everyone has their likes and dislikes, but the best blogs are upfront about them and don’t let themselves get embroiled in anything outside of the specific book they’re reviewing. Everything else — whether an author has been irritating, or they’re your best friend, or you think the cover sucks, or whatever — it’s all ultimately irrelevant to whether or not the book is any good.
Jordan: I agree with that. I hate seeing review blogs using their platform and voice to get involved in whatever drama happens to be occurring in the genre. It’s arbitrary to their purpose.
Lisa: I think the review site serves a purpose for the readers who’ve found a site (or two) they have come to discover matches their tastes and reading preferences. Review sites also serve as an extra platform for authors to reach out to readers, something that Goodreads and Amazon can’t do. Believe it or not, authors and readers interacting can still be a positive experience regardless of how many instances on GR and Amazon there have been that might prove otherwise. So, yes, I think review sites serve a two-fold purpose as a resource for readers and authors.
Question: Is the star (or equivalent symbol) rating system antiquated or is it useful? Do readers look to a book’s rating as a recommendation, or do readers look at the review itself to determine whether to purchase and read a book?
Jordan: As a reader, I look to both. The star rating to me, is like a snapshot of the review. It’s the first thing you see and in many ways it’s the summary of all the words that follow. I still read the reviews because I like to know why a book earned that 1 (or 5) star review.
Kate: Speaking as an author, when I put a new book out it’s the stars I care about. The reviews are interesting, getting someone else’s perspective, but the fact is that with the huge increase in books being published (in all genres), to get noticed you need as many five-stars as you can get. I don’t think it’s helpful that advertising sites like Bookbub have bought into the star rating system and now demand minimum ratings in order to list books, because as we have seen time and again with Goodreads and Amazon, ratings can be manipulated.
Speaking as a reader, I tend to look at average ratings and read the lower reviews, mainly to see if there’s anything in a book that makes it a write-off for me. I prefer, however, to formulate my own opinion, and I find often the books that stuck with me most aren’t the ones where I loved them and could give five gushing stars (or indeed the ones I could hardly stand to finish) but the ones in the middle that maybe upset me, maybe challenged me and made me think, but left me with a new experience afterwards. Sometimes the best books vacillate so wildly between the ends of the rating spectrum it’s simply reductive and unhelpful to sum them up on a point scale of 1-5.
Lisa: I have a love/hate relationship with the rating system. First of all, it’s not used consistently across review sites, so what may be a 3 star rating on one blog could be a 2 on another. I also think it’s easy to lean on that star rating (as a reviewer), especially if a book is bad, to avoid outright stating what was wrong with the book. I think doing away with the rating system would force a more consistent written method of critiquing, but I also know it’s an unreasonable expectation because we’re all conditioned to look for the star rating to determine whether or not to bother reading a review. I’ll be the first to admit when I see a book that’s been rated 1 star, I’m more likely to read that review first to see if what that reviewer disliked about the book will be what I’d be most likely to dislike about it too.
Jordan: If I rate something low, or high, I feel I owe it to my audience to explain why. That’s the overall purpose of reviewers in the first place.
Question: Why are books that reviewers rate 5 stars open to immediate skepticism from readers?
Jordan: To me, it’s all about the reviewer. If the reviewer is all sunshine and rainbows all the time then I’m more likely to be skeptical of their take on things. I like explanations as to why they liked it, not just flailing over the hot character or a certain sex scene, etc. That said, if they consistently rate books 5 stars and intelligently explain themselves in the review (RE: not just copy/paste their favorite parts), I don’t immediately write them off.
Kate: I think 5* reviews are boring (there, I said it!). We might read books and love them and think they’re utterly perfect in every way, but those reviews don’t make for entertaining reading. Without snarky 1* reviews — however cruel, however unfair — GR and platforms like it would have died a long time ago. The internet feeds the human desire for conflict, and reviews are no different. Plus, we all find it easier to believe in the bad than the good, hence 5*s are met with skepticism, and 1*s are met with delight.
As an aside, however, Elisa Rolle’s blog comes to mind as a shining example of how someone can focus on the positives of the titles they review without being accused of partiality.
Lisa: To me, this all goes back to the arbitrariness of the star rating system. A 5 star rating for me doesn’t necessarily have to mean that particular book is the greatest story ever told, written in an impeccable, stylistic prose, as if the author has chewed up all the words in the dictionary and spit them out in a miracle of literary composition.
For me, a five star book can be as simple as one that made me not want to feed my family for a few days because I didn’t want to put it down. It can mean everything from I’ve fallen in love with the characters to the author has written a book so rich in layer and undercurrent that wading through it becomes like a treasure hunt of meaning. This is why the number means little to me, it’s what the reviewer says about the book that matters to me.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I’d like to thank Kate and Lisa for participating. I hope this will further discussions on this topic and maybe shed a little light on the reasons behind why authors/reviewers behave the way they do. Leave your thoughts in the comments below if you agree or disagree with what was said.